What makes the Foolish Wise?
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
I don’t know about you, but over the spring I became somewhat fascinated with all that is going on in Washington D.C. We seem to be a new era of both public political portrayal and news coverage. As I watched different news anchors pry information out of our politicians, I became aware of an interesting change in the way that they respond to each other. It goes something like this: News anchor A asks politician B a question. Then politician B reframes the questions and answer a question that was not asked. That particular technique in debate is called of course “REFRAMING” like reframing a picture by placing the piece of art in a completely different frame so that it appears different than it did before and it falls into the category of Logical fallacies.
I sit there as I watch these debates shouting at my television as if it could hear me saying, “Just answer the question”. Then they go on to miraculously find a way to mention all of the pertinent legislature that they have written, passed or voted on. Then I end up thinking “OK you are smart, you got elected, you know how to run a campaign, but if you can’t answer the question you look rather foolish. And the last thing that we want are foolish leaders. But is it really? Or do we need to stretch our definition and understanding of those two words, to find that in the world of Faith and of Paul, they may have completely different definitions.
Sometimes the wisest among us can be the most foolish.
Mensa is an organization whose members have an IQ of 140 or higher. A few years ago, there was a Mensa convention in San Francisco, and several members lunched at a local café. While dining, they discovered that their saltshaker contained pepper and their peppershaker was full of salt. How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling, and using only the implements at hand? Clearly this was a job for Mensa! The group debated and presented ideas, and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution. “Ma’am,” they said, “we couldn’t help but notice that the peppershaker contains salt and the saltshaker pepper.” “Oh,” the waitress interrupted. “Sorry about that.” She unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.
This is the struggle that Paul is dealing with and with which we deal with far more often than we think. At the time of Paul’s writing, Corinth is THE city of Greece both commercially as well as politically. While Athens may have been the apex of philosophical thought in ancient Greek, Corinth held its own. There were 12 different great temples in Corinth. The most powerful and influential was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This particular religion and I use the term religion loosely not only practiced but encouraged all kinds of sexual immorality in the name of religion. In fact one commentator has said that the verb form of the name of the city, to Corinthianize really means to practice all kinds of sexual immorality.
With that being said, one, if not the dominant cultural norm of the city, it is really quite easy to see why the church of Jesus Christ was having such a difficult struggle in establishing itself. Each particular so called religion and school of thought was proclaiming that they had the corner on true wisdom, which made it the way to peace and tranquility. And since it was such a powerful norm of society it was what the wise of society thought that people should follow. After all, our children can be foolish at time, but we train them to be wise. To make wise choices. Bad choices are foolish so they should stay away from them. Given all of that, it would be somewhat logical to deduce why it is that Paul is using the rather sophisticated argument of wisdom verses foolishness to talk about how the faith of Christ and His church needs to stand against some of the cultural norms of the time, and proclaim what they believe to be eternal and just.
Sometimes when I read the Bible but more often when I teach the Bible, this strange thought runs through my mind. What kind of a word did the early Christians live in? That dances around there because of a different question that is behind the first one. Most of us in this sanctuary have heard a lot of the messages and stories about Christ sometime before in our life. But what was it about the culture and the time of Christ that made his message so revolutionary? Why was it so objectionable to the authorities of the time? Sure we understand the political nature of Christ’s message and how the Roman and the Jewish authorities could have objected to it. But those were mostly passages and sayings that deal with Kingship or God’s Kingdom and were perceived as a threat to the political order.
But what of the moral teaching? What made them so radical: A Samaritan stops by the side of the road to help someone in need? Jesus says to a woman being stoned for adultery, “Let those without sin cast the first stone” And what about the shock of the disciples when they find Jesus talking to the woman at the well who had 5 husbands. What about that strange little man up in the tree named Zacchaeus with whom Jesus shared a meal? The list could go on and on. And he wasn’t supposed to do any of that stuff. We may hear stories or statements like that and shrug them off with, “Yah, I did hear that someplace before” but the risks of actually doing that is too great. Our society is so different that we would never do that.
The second church I served from 1983-1988 was about 10 miles from the state maximum prison in Illinois. During the time the time I served that church, Richard Speck was incarcerated there. Richard Speck is the person who murdered 8 nurses in Chicago back in 1966 and had been sentenced to 400 years in prison for his crimes. The mere presence of that building radically affected one’s ability to fulfill anything close to the Good Samaritan’s role in the parable that carries his name.
In fact the minister’s association had a real problem. Because the association was made up of ministers from three different small farming communities, they had set up a system to minister to transients where the services that they provided came from two different towns. Food was provided from the town in which my church was located, but the Motel we used for over nights was in the town 8 miles away. So the problem was, what does one do when someone comes to the church in need of a place to spend the night. Do we risk putting that person in our car or in the car of a church member to drive them over to the other city, or do we give them a voucher and point to the east and say “Well the motel is an 8 mile walk, good luck.”
We really struggle with that, as we want to be Christ’s examples of love and compassion on the heart, but the risk of helping someone who might be hitch hiking across Illinois on Route 24 was a real one. So our solution was to provide the assistance and then call the local police office of which we only had two or three, to transport that person to the other town.
So imagine my surprise when one of our elders walked into a Christmas Eve service with a man I had never seen before and who was wearing clothes that obviously did not fit him. As John, my elder, and this man left the worship service in the wee hours of Christmas morning, I asked the visitor his name, and he rather quietly told me. Now the farming town in which the church was located had fewer people than my high school, so it would have been a little difficult for a new person to move into town with me being unaware of it. So I asked him, “Are you new in town?”
To which John through a big grin said, “Oh no. He is from Indiana and his car ran off the road between here and Pontiac (the town in which the prison was located).” “Oh” I said trying not to jump 3 feet backwards. “I was coming back from last minute shopping when I noticed his car off the road, and since it was going to be almost impossible to get a tow truck or a service repair person out to him, I invited him over for Christmas.
All I could say was, “Wow, that’s great John,” and I turned the man and said “Merry Christmas.”
All the way home on the short drive to the manse, all I could think about was our two small boys asleep in the beds and what my wife Susan would have said if I had brought home a man I found at the side of the road on a cold Christmas Eve. Now which one of us was foolish and which one of us was wise? I suppose that we could debate that for quite a while. All I could really say was, “Thank you God that John is part of my congregation!”
Isn’t that the way that it is with faith? The faith that Paul proclaims to the church is the same faith that we struggle with. When is it appropriate to do the wise thing and perpetuate the norms and assumption of society and when is it appropriate to do what in the eyes of the wise, seems absolutely foolish. Is it wise to hold out personal safety and security over the safety and security of others? Well I am quite humbled and glad that the Lord has brought me to serve the churches that he has.
In 1999, my last church formed a partnership with Faith Ministry out of McAllen Texas. Faith Ministry provides, housing, medical assistance, and educational assistance to the poor of the poorest living in Reynosa, Mexico. It started with a gift that provided the cost of the material for a house. That was followed by 12 partly curious, and partly courageous people from three different churches who made a trip to Mexico during a very hot April to build a house. It was a fun and exciting time to be part of 100 different work teams who made a difference that year.
But over the years that city and that country crept into the news of this county as a place where wise people should not go. The drug wars became uglier and uglier. Pressure that we should not make that trip started to build on those of us who made that trip. Is it safe there? Why aren’t you helping people closer to home? How can you know that you are making a difference? All of those questions and concerns were working their way through the congregation.
Well since 1999 that church has not missed a single year of sending people to Reynosa to build a house, worshiping, praying and singing together and experience a part of the Holy Spirit that not everyone experiences. Did they ever feel unsafe? No!
So why are they so foolish? There are a number of reasons I suppose. First being that the people with whom we worked became our friends. We missed them. We longed to reconnect with them every year so that we could see Pearle, a young girl with limited possibilities in the future go to college and get a degree in Marketing, marry a lawyer and have three children. And we cried when one of them died because health care is so terrible. There is no such thing as an ambulance, and expectant mothers are given a list of medications that they need to bring to the hospital for delivery. And if that is enough that’s great, but if it isn’t, well that can be too bad depending on the circumstances and the hospital. And secondly we have no desire at all to let the drug cartels win. Because there are few radios there and most people will never read the newspaper. All they know is that their friends from up north stopped coming.
Has all of that been foolish or has it been wise? Having missed only one of those trips before retirement, I would say that it has been a little bit of both, all depending on the glasses through which a person looks. And I think that Paul would say the same thing.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen